Tensions rise at pro-Palestine demonstration, countered by supporters of Israel
UNC's Students for Justice in Palestine held a protest Thursday morning on the steps of Wilson Library to advocate for Palestinians amid the recent escalation to war between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
SJP’s demonstration was met with counter-protests from some members of the University community who support Israel.
The protest coincided with a nationwide day of resistance, as declared by the National Students for Justice in Palestine. It was co-sponsored by a number of other organizations, including NC Triangle Democratic Socialists of America, the North and South Carolina branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and UNC's National Lawyers Guild.
The demonstration was held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the same time as the University Day ceremony to celebrate UNC's 230th anniversary. Classes were canceled for the ceremony.
Around 80 pro-Palestine protesters, many of whom wore masks to conceal their identities, held signs as they stood on the steps of the library, facing a crowd of nearly 200 people. The group voiced chants in between various community and student speeches.
“We are one campus organization, among many, that are concerned for the colonization, occupation and apartheid in Palestine,” a member of SJP, who requested to remain anonymous, said at the protest. “We're here to host this rally in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
About 15 minutes into the demonstration, several pro-Israel counter-protesters walked across the Quad toward Wilson Library. They held signs and Israeli flags as they faced the pro-Palestine protesters.
UNC students Justin Sonnenreich and Dan Stompel said they organized the counter-protest to show support for Israel. Stompel said he did not want to be silent, noting that the counter-protesters wanted to "go out there and show that there are people who support the other side."
“The whole point of this was for solidarity,” Stompel said. “The fact that these people chose now as the perfect time to have these protests against what they call resistance, I think is atrocious, because only a couple of days ago, more than 1,000 Israelis were systematically slaughtered.”
The Rev. Mark Davidson, executive director of Voices for Justice in Palestine, spoke at the event.
“We contend the Hamas attack, as horrible and shocking as it was, but nevertheless, we understood in this broader context they were Palestinian freedom fighters using armed resistance in [an] attempt to throw off their Israeli colonizers,” he said in his speech.
Some counter-protesters responded, yelling “Do you condemn Hamas?”
A little over an hour into the demonstration, Israeli counter-protester and UNC religious studies professor Evyatar Marienberg moved closer to the students and community members protesting for Palestine. He then raised an Israeli flag in front of the protesters as they chanted "Free, free Palestine" and raised a Palestinian flag.
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Both groups moved toward each other, with the pro-Israel counter-protesters standing in front of a line of pro-Palestine protesters. Marienberg walked past the line of supporters of Palestine, shouting, “Nazis."
The protest escalated, tensions seem high between students.
A counter protester, UNC religious studies professor, began shouting "Nazis" at the protestors supporting Palestine and was escorted away by UNC Police. pic.twitter.com/PPv8AU4Rs7
Marienberg motioned for other counter-protesters to join him before he was escorted to a nearby area by UNC Police. As he was being directed by police, Marienberg said a protest attendee threw a liquid that sprayed his back.
“I don't like people that justify the rapes and massacres, no matter where they come from," he said.
Global studies professor Michal Osterweil attended the protest in solidarity with Palestinians.
“I feel sad that faculty are trying to shame and shut down students,” she said.
Osterweil described Marienberg’s behavior as “so inappropriate” and “unfortunate” and said she felt sad that students were not able to speak without being “heckled.” Sonnenreich and Stompel said Marienberg’s actions went “too far” and were “not the right message to send.”
Osterweil said she does not think simplistic “black and white” or “good guy, bad guy” framing of the situation is most helpful.
“I think we fall back on words and political ideologies and political sides because it’s easier than being with that tremendous, tremendous grief and pain,” she said.
A pro-Israel protest attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, described the demonstration as “a big spectacle” and added that it was not productive.
During the University Day event, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz acknowledged the conflict's impact on UNC students during his remarks, condemning "all forms of violence."
“Rest assured, we are focused on our people and supporting them during this difficult time. My leadership team and I have been reaching out and meeting directly with those who are hurting, especially our students,” Guskiewicz said.
Please see my statement from University Day regarding the terrorist attacks of Hamas in Israel and the devastation in Gaza pic.twitter.com/xjQTPmbGGx
UNC Board of Trustees member Perrin Jones said he knows administrative efforts are being made to support faculty and students, but he does not know “the specifics." Osterwiel said she has not heard of any efforts from the University to support students and faculty right now.
Although the anonymous pro-Israel protest attendee said they do not think the current discourse is productive, they respect that the University allowed protesters the freedom of speech.
“That’s their right," they said. “It’s our right to be here as well.”